Children play and learn in Utah church as family fights for asylum in U.S.

Friday, July 13, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A playground surrounded by a large shade tree stands right outside the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, where Vicky Chavez and her two young daughters have been taking sanctuary for the past six months.

But Chavez never allows Yaretzi, 6, or Issabella, 11 months, to play there. They never step foot outside the church.

Chavez, 30, is afraid that U.S. immigration officials would round them up and send them back to Honduras, where she said she fears for their safety because of an abusive boyfriend. Her fears led her to seek asylum in the United States four years ago.

Despite immigration judges repeatedly denying her request, Chavez told reporters Monday night that she’s determined to remain in the church and fight to stay in Utah, where her parents and siblings live. In a long-shot effort, her lawyers are seeking relief from a federal appeals court.

“I shall keep fighting. I can help to be the voice of the other mothers that are seeking asylum from domestic abuse,” Chavez said, surrounded by supporters holding signs. “We come to this country to feel safe and protected.”

She said seeing other immigrant parents separated from their children at the border makes her even more reticent to return home and face a possible split from her daughters if she tried to seek U.S. asylum again.

“I can’t imagine feeling the pain of being separated from one of my daughters,” Chavez said in Spanish during an interview with The Associated Press last month. “Sleeping in a detention center is not easy at all. I lived it. And I lived it with my daughter, but not separated.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement considers Chavez an immigration fugitive, spokesman Carl Rusnok said in an email Monday.

She entered the United States illegally in June 2014 and was ordered deported by a federal immigration judge in December 2016, Rusnok said. Chavez exhausted her appeals on Jan. 30, he said.

That night, Chavez had a plane ticket home to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. But instead she accepted an offer of sanctuary from the First Unitarian Church.